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Life after bed bugs: I'd like to say I won

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I fought a battle with bed bugs over a year ago. After losing a mattress and new bed, I advanced on the critters with powders and poison, dry cleaning and heat. Three months and nearly $600 later, they retreated and I rebuilt. I’d like to say I won, but I’m not sure I did.  As far as I’m concerned, I’m in bed bug remission.

Since receiving the “all-clear,” I’ve moved into a new apartment, bought new furniture and haven’t had any indication that the bugs tagged along. Yet they continue to torment me.  

At night, I still occasionally get the feeling of something crawling over my skin and I snap the light on.  On good nights, I’ll do a quick scan, see nothing and go back to bed, but on bad nights, I’ll leap up and go straight into combat mode. This includes such things as lifting my mattress, stripping my sheets and shooting bug spray into cracks and crevices to poison any hiders out into the open. (This has never led to anything but a terrible night’s sleep).

During the day, the sight of any small brown spot can cause embarrassing reflexes. I’ve tackled fuzz, smashed crumbs and sprayed poison on holes left by nails in my wall.

When I shop, I wrack my brain, considering whether I really need another item that would have to be washed if I ever needed my apartment exterminated again. In dressing rooms, I inspect clothing for bed bugs and I won’t even bother browsing second-hand furniture shops anymore.

Since living through an infestation that required me to question every item I owned, I’ve become obsessed with having less stuff. I’ve started throwing out one item for each item I bring home to avoid accumulating too many things.

When I finish a book, I sell it, rather than add it to my book collection, which I’ve severely reduced since learning that these critters can live nearly anywhere—between book pages, behind paintings and inside electrical outlets.

In social situations I find myself asking people awkward questions like, “how long do you hold on to tax information,” and “do you think it’s really necessary to hang on to warranties?”  

Lately I’ve been eyeing my photo albums, wondering if it would make more sense for me to scan all my photos onto my computer than worry that a resilient bug is holed up behind my prom picture, waiting for his hunger pains to kick in.

And I’m still afraid that if my friends or family members will find out they have bed bugs, suspicion will fall on me.

Thirteen months later, my bed bug neuroses are starting to dissipate. I’ve gone from 20 sleepless nights a month during the height of the infestation, to perhaps four. I haven’t lunged at a crumb in a while, and I made some exceptions to my anti possession-accumulation rule. But I certainly don’t see things with quite the naïveté I used to.

Last March, the New York Times quoted a bed-bug-stricken woman who said,  “I have to remember no one is sick, no one has cancer,” in an attempt to console herself.  I remember laughing when I read this, recalling how I had said similar things in an attempt to put things in perspective.

Cancer is obviously more serious than an infestation—and that’s the point of making this comparison. Infestations will end. They affect possessions, not life. They’re expensive, but likely won’t cause the types of financial strains associated with a life-threatening illness. Still, there’s one similarity between the two that I continue to think about: the way in which people think and talk about the infestation or extermination once they get the “all-clear.”

My exterminator has given me the equivalent of a clean bill of health. But as any bed bug survivor knows, this "cure" is merely a remission. No matter how clean or careful I am, I will never be immune.  Bed bugs are sneaky and resilient, and the only thing I can do (unless scientists develop a solution) is to stay vigilant, act quickly at the first sign of a relapse, and remind myself that sometimes a crumb is just a crumb.

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